When he finished writing his 2011 book “Nemesis,” Philip Roth says “I didn’t realize it was my last book.”
But, he declares, “it is now.”
And the retirement he admitted offhand at the end of an interview in an obscure French publication last year, that was first reported stateside in Salon, has been sublime, he told reporters in a rare press conference Monday to TV critics on their winter press tour in Pasadena, via satellite from New York.
“Yeah, it’s great so far,” he reported on his retirement to date. “I get up in the morning. I go to the kitchen. I get a large glass of orange juice, and I go back to bed and read for an hour and a half. I never have done that in my entire life. So I’m doing fine without writing. Someone should have told me about this earlier.”
The occasion of his press conference was in a biographical film, “Philip Roth: Unmasked” that will premiere on PBS’ “American Masters” March 29, ten days after his 80th birthday.
The press appearance also came a little more than Atwo months after the media flurry concerning his retirement.
Of the fuss, Roth says “I was a bit surprised. In fact, I was very surprised” even as he explained how it happened.
“About a year ago or eight months ago, I was interviewed by a French journalist for not the biggest French magazine at all, but it’s one a friend of mine works for. So I agreed to be interviewed, and near the end of the interview, she said to me, ‘What are you working on?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ And she said, ‘Why is that?’ I said, “Well, I think it’s over. I think I’m finished,’ and that was it,” Roth says.
“In this obscure little French magazine, there was those lines, and I never heard another thing about it. Then somebody must have gone to a barber shop one day where they get this French magazine and read the article and saw this stuff.”
He didn’t quite remember it was Salon that picked it up, saying “I forget whether it was The Daily Beast or Huffington they translated the French on Google.”
Roth says the “quotation came out completely inaccurate, but that was the beginning of the earthquake.”
The notably press-shy Roth had otherwise made news last year when a new biographer was chosen to work with him after years with another. The TV biography was apparently was less of a problem.
And I asked him why he chose now to participate.
“Well, time is running out, you know,” he said. “And if I didn’t do it now, when would I do it?”
Besides, in retirement, suddenly he had time. “I put it off because I had other things to do. You know, I’d been writing all these years, and I would write a very long day, and I wrote seven days a week,” he said. “But also I put it off because nobody asked me, but the process itself was quite it was wonderful. I had a good time.”
Because this was a gathering of TV critics, he was asked what he watched on TV, and aside from pimping “American Masters” (“I just watched the other night the wonderful program on Joan Baez”) he said “I watch the news a little bit, half an hour at night. In the summer I watch two or three innings of baseball, the end of a game. But aside from that, no, because I like to read, and you’ve just only got so much time, and I find that I prefer to spend two to three hours a night on the nights I’m home reading.”
Part of his reading has involved re-reading his own canon, an exercise that came to a new consideration of his output.
“I’m particularly partial to a book called ‘Sabbath’s Theater,’ which a lot of people hate. That’s not the reason I like it. But I think it’s I think it’s got a lot of freedom in it. That’s what you are looking for as a writer when you’re working. You’re looking for your own freedom, to lose your inhibition to delve deep into your memory and experience of life, and then to find the prose that will persuade the reader. So I like ‘Sabbath’s Theater.’ I advise you all to read it.
“The other book I like very much is the book that followed ‘Sabbath’s Theater.’ ‘Sabbath’s Theater’ is about a kind of giant of disobedience. Mickey Sabbath, he’s death haunted, and he, yet, has great gaiety about his own death. He’s an interesting guy. But he wouldn’t be thought of as a conventionally virtuous man. And in ‘American Pastoral,’ the next book, I wanted to write about a conventionally virtuous man. I was sick of Mickey Sabbath, and I wanted to go to the other end of the spectrum.
Doing both books back to back, he said, “enabled me to write about the decade, the most powerful decade of my life, the ’60s, and the domestic turbulence of the ’60s, and I think I got a lot of that into the book.”
One subject from the 60s that was his target was Richard Nixon, savagely lampooned in his one book of political satire, “Our Gang.”
Time has not softened Roth’s attitude on Nixon when I asked about him.
“I’ve despised him,” he said, “and I continue to.
Roth calls “Our Gang” “a one off shot” that was “not my best book.”
But, he said, Nixon “was just so despicable that I had to write that book.”
Roth says that a citizen he’s very interested in American politics and what’s happening in the world — and very near to him.
“I’m as troubled as the next American citizen about just what’s happened in the last six weeks … in Connecticut where I live. Horrifying, horrifying thing. And the stupidity with which the tragedy is greeted by the people who can’t get into their heads the fact that guns kill people. I pay attention to what’s going on, and it doesn’t always please me.”
As such, it has occasionally inspired him to write. “History has worked its way into quite a few of my books, beginning, I think, with most seriously beginning with ‘American Pastoral,’ which takes place in the about 1970 when the turbulence of the Vietnam War had interfered with all our lives, to put it mildly.
“And then I wrote ‘I Married a Communist,’ which takes place in the just the pre McCarthy anti-Communist crusade, 1945 to ’50, and then ‘The Human Stain’ I set in the late ’90s when the Clinton sex scandal aroused the sanctimonious America, and I wanted to write a book about that sanctimony.
“And then in my last book, ‘Nemesis,’ I wrote about what life was like during the terrible polio menace. And Indignation, I wrote about the Korean War. So American history has stimulated me a great deal.
“Now, the problem is you just I’m not a historian. I’m a novelist. So I have to find the story, the people, to come at the history obliquely and yet somehow get the power from it.”
Even so, he said, the toughest thing about writing the past 60 years was “coming up with a new subject: What shall I write about next? I’m not someone who had books ten books in mind to write. Maybe some writers do. I think most of them are more like me, which is I don’t know where to go after I’ve finished a book. I feel barren. I am barren. I put everything into the previous book, so I’ve got to search for a subject, and then I find it, or I search for a character, or I think of a character in a predicament, like the character in ‘American Pastoral.’
“And then I’ve got that’s all I’ve got are two sticks, you know, the character and the predicament, and I’ve gotta produce a whole world, world of language and a world, and so that’s a labor. And it’s laborious.”
Not that he’s denigrating labor.
“All work is hard. Everybody’s job is hard. I’m just telling you the way in which mine is hard. It’s laborious to come up with the fullness, the richness of the thing. You know, you build a book out of sentences, and the sentences are built up out of details, so you’re working brick by brick to make this structure, you know, and the bricks are heavy. That’s why it’s so laborious.”
Still, he said he’s found his way despite, or perhaps because, some serious competition.
“American literature is a powerful literature and has been throughout the 20th Century, especially after the war, and especially my generation.
“I mean, I ran against some very fast horses — William Styron, John Updike, Ed Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates — and there’s probably another ten in the stable.
“And it’s great. It’s great to run against fast horses,” he said, hastening to add, Cormac McCarthy I should have mentioned.”
“I think we have a powerful literature,” Roth says. “ As far as I know, it’s the best in the world. Now, the Nobel Prize committee doesn’t agree with me. They think we’re provincial.
But, he adds, “I suspect they’re a bit provincial.”
“Philip Roth: Unmasked” premieres on “American Masters” March 29 at 9 p.m. on PBS.